Wolfgang Peterson’s 1997 film "Air Force One" opens with a speech made by U.S. President James Marshall, who is addressing an assembly in Russia. He is being congratulated for the success of a joint operation between Russia and the United States in which a dictator of a terrorist regime in former Kazakhstan was captured. During his talk, the president goes off script, to the horror of his aides. “The truth is, we acted too late. Only when our own national security was threatened did we act.” He goes on to say, “Never again will I allow our political self-interest to deter us from doing what we know to be morally right."
Every time I watch this scene, I nod my head in disbelief and say to myself, “President [whomever the current U.S. president is at the time] would never do that.” To admit a mistake like that, to take responsibility for something that went wrong, is just not what politicians do out of their own free will. And don’t get me started about political self-interest. Right about this point is where the movie begins to lose me every time I watch it.
I know that out of the spectrum of political-based movies and TV shows that Hollywood has gifted us, "Air Force One" is probably the least likely candidate in which to compare to real-life politics. I’m aware of this. But there’s something to be said about the character of Harrison Ford’s President Marshall in that film. He’s honest, strong-willed, willing to admit his mistakes and skilled in the art of hand-to-hand combat. That’s what we need from the leader of the free world, skill in hand-to-hand-combat.
In all seriousness, I’ve really grappled with how to go about writing this week’s column. With the upcoming presidential elections in November, politics is a timely issue right now. I feel like I need to say something about its current state in America. But, I also don’t want to come off as cynical, and I certainly don’t want to take sides because, as everyone knows, politics is something that gets everyone in a tizzy. And I don’t want to be in the middle of anyone’s tizzy.
Don’t get me wrong. I like the film. It does its job, which is to entertain, with plenty of action and cool, Harrison Ford one-liners, such as, “Get off my plane.” But the idea that it presents—the honor in taking responsibility for one’s actions—is hard to swallow for me, which may say something about me, but it also says something about the state of politics today because I don’t think I’m alone. This idea seems to be a fairy tale, fiction, fantasy. And to me, it’s the very foundation of the problem. It’s an extremely fractured system on all levels, right down to local school boards. And it needs to be fixed. We all know this. I couldn’t possibly, and don’t want to, go into all of the things that are wrong with America’s political process. But that one idea—the lack of taking responsibility for one’s actions—is at the core.
And the problem is so big, so demoralizing, that Hollywood feels the need to produce (and we feel the need to watch) movies and TV shows like "Air Force One," "The West Wing" and others to see idealized versions of the political figures we’d like to see in real life because they make us feel good. They inspire us because figures like these are lacking in every facet of our political system in America. We need political heroes. We need Harrison Ford.
There’s another crucial point in "Air Force One" that defines the character of Ford’s President Marshall. It’s the scene where he has a choice to either get off the hijacked plane and save himself or stay on and try to save his family and his staff. Now, in my cynicism, I assume that any politician in real life would choose the former. And if he didn’t, his bodyguards would force him off the plane. And the argument can be made that if he chooses to stay, he would be putting his family before his country, and that would go against what he swore to do when he took office—to put his country first. But, in the film, Marshall chooses to stay and fight for his family. There’s honor in that. Even Russian terrorist Ivan Koshunov, played by Gary Oldman, calls him a coward when he thinks that the president escaped the plane to save himself. But the president chooses to stay on because it’s the right thing to do. And he made that decision not based on political self-interest but on honor and what he knows is right. "Air Force One" may be just a cheesy, action-adventure thriller, but sometimes, pop culture can provide a much-needed lesson on this plane ride we call life.
Charlie Moss writes about local history and popular culture, including music, movies and comics. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.